Arminís Quick and Dirty Tips and Tricks to Automotive Photography
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This is a discussion on Arminís Quick and Dirty Tips and Tricks to Automotive Photography within the Member Show-Off & Photography forums, part of the Community - Meet other Enthusiasts category; NOTE: This was original written for NASIOC, so after talking with Teh Weasel I figured it'd be good to post ...

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    Arminís Quick and Dirty Tips and Tricks to Automotive Photography

    NOTE: This was original written for NASIOC, so after talking with Teh Weasel I figured it'd be good to post here too. Please don't hesitate to post up and ask questions!

    Back in the day…

    I started shooting cars professionally as part of Subiesport Magazine since the magazine’s inception back in 2004. I learned a lot along the way, since at the time I was really a complete newbie when it came to photography. Consequently, I must thank my good friend Josh Mackey (http://www.mackeydesigns.com) and Subiesport Publisher Ryan Douthit for their help and tutelage. Ferg asked me to write something up, so I am honored to pass on some of my basic automotive photography methods to NASIOC, and I hope that these can help both beginners and experienced photographers alike. By no means do I regard myself as all knowing in automotive photography, but I love to help people take better pictures and learn new techniques right along side me. Without further ado, we’ll first start out with basic composition.

    Part 1 -- Point and do WHAT?!

    I started shooting cars professionally as part of Subiesport Magazine since the magazine’s inception back in 2004. I learned a lot along the way, since at the time I was really a complete newbie when it came to photography. Consequently, I must thank my good friend Josh Mackey (http://www.mackeydesigns.com) and Subiesport Publisher Ryan Douthit for their help and tutelage. Ferg asked me to write something up, so I am honored to pass on some of my automotive photography methods to NASIOC, and I hope that these can help both beginners and experienced photographers alike. By no means do I regard myself as all knowing in automotive photography, but I love to help people take better pictures and learn new techniques right along side me. Without further ado, we’ll first start out with basic composition.

    Centered is rarely best

    It’s easy to take a picture and put everything you want in the center, but unfortunately it doesn’t make for good photography. Generally, you want to follow the Rule of Thirds, which basically means that you want to put your subject at the cross section of two lines that cut your photo into thirds. An easy way visualize this is to imagine a tic-tac-toe board on your screen or viewfinder. Some cameras may even have this as an option to overlay on the screen. Here is an example of the Rule of Thirds in action:



    I’ve overlaid the “Rule of Thirds” grid from Photoshop’s crop function so that you can see the grid lines. You can see how the car is situated right at what I call a “thirds crosspoint” to follow the Rule of Thirds. Keep in mind, while this is called a “rule,” it’s actually more of a guideline. I definitely recommend that you practice the Rule of Thirds so that you find yourself always doing it, and then you can get more creative with breaking the rule. This is one of the most important things to learn in photo composition, so definitely make sure you master it before feeling like you can break it any time.

    Angles can be good…and bad

    Going overboard on crazy angles to get a unique picture is very easy to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Remember that you want the viewer of your photo to truly grasp what you’re trying to capture, but if they have to break their neck or do a headstand to see it, then they’ll probably just look elsewhere. Make no mistake, there’s a time and place for crazy angles, but use them sparingly and make sure that everyone can tell what they’re looking at. Here is a very bad example from when I first started taking photos:



    Also, keep in mind that a very slight angle can change the feel of a photo. Here is the same car, just with a slightly different angle to the photo. Which do you prefer? It all depends on what your purpose is:



    Avoid the cut-off

    Just a quick and simple tip. If you’re trying to take a picture of the whole car, make sure you actually take a full picture of the car, and don’t cut off the bumpers, wheels, spoilers, etc. It makes sense to cut off sections if you just want to single one or two things out (such as close-ups of individual parts in an engine bay), but if you want to get everything, pay attention not to cut off parts of your subject.

    Wheels vs. Tire Tread

    In this grudge match, the wheel always wins. If you’re taking a picture of a car, especially from ĺ position, angle the wheels so that the face of the wheel is facing the camera, not the tire tread. While some tire tread is really aggressive-looking, 99% of the time the photo will be better showing off the face of the wheel instead of the tire tread, especially if they’re aftermarket wheels. Even stock wheels can look good in a properly taken photo, but we won’t know that unless we actually see them, right? There will be times when you just want the wheels to be straight, but turning the wheels to face the camera often gives a more posed look that shows that you’ve taken your time and put effort into the photo, rather than just taking a photo of a car off the street. Here is an example using a 100% stock car:



    The background is not just noise

    While the car is going to be the subject of your photo, that doesn’t mean that the background doesn’t matter. Even with proper composition, a good background can substantially help or wreck a photo. Industrial backgrounds are very overused, but it’s understandable to use if you’re in a pinch. Ideally, you want a background that helps add to the theme of a photo or just plain looks good overall. A driveway photo shoot isn’t all that great either unless the driveway is filled with a bunch more nice cars. Just be careful not to choose a background that blends in too much with your car, because then your subject won’t stand out. Here are a couple of my favorite backgrounds that I’ve been able to use:





    It is also very important to make sure there aren’t distractions in the background that interfere with your subject, such as trees or poles growing out of the car, power lines dominating the scene, or random garbage on the surrounding ground. Attention to detail is very important when it comes to your background, and can easily be the difference between a simple snapshot and an actual thought-out photo.

    Camera elevation

    A key point of any type of photography is to try to capture something that isn’t normally seen by your naked eye. Thus, try your best not to take photos from standard standing height. If you get real low or get real high, you’ll have a much better overall photo. Very rarely will you see me taking a photo from a standing position. I sometimes even bring a stepladder with me to get a higher elevated shot, since being Filipino, I’m not a tall man. And, don’t be afraid to get dirty with a low shot. Here’s a high and a low example:



    Last edited by Verdugo; 12-21-2012 at 12:29 PM. Reason: Revised tips
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    Part 2 -- Photography is Light

    Remember that when you’re taking a photo, you’re capturing how light is reflecting off of everything in the photo. Light rules everything with an iron fist, and getting the proper exposure is key to a good photo. After all, if you can’t see anything, what’s the point?

    Be careful with backlights

    Generally speaking, you want to avoid backlights in automotive photography. Remember that typically you want your light source behind you, so that it lights up your subject. If you’re taking a photo of a car with the light source behind it, such as the sun or a streetlight, then you’ll more than likely get lens flare (the ugly green or brown series of circles that emanate from the light source in question) and your subject will not receive enough light. You can still make it work...



    ...but you just have to make sure you understand what problems might arise when you capture the photo. Another option would be to use artificial lighting such as strobes, flashes, or light painting, but those create their own limitations and don’t really fall under the realm of basic tips and tricks.

    High ISO / high-speed film is no substitute for a tripod

    A tripod solves almost all of your focus and noise issues, whether you’re using a digital or film camera. If you don’t have a tripod, get one! It will be one of the best investments you can make. Sure, you can turn the ISO up or use high-speed film to increase your light sensitivity, but only at the expense of more noise and graininess in your photo. Ideally, you want to set your ISO to your camera’s lowest base ISO that you need in order to capture your photo. Your camera’s base ISO numbers can be found in you camera’s manual, but typically it’ll either be ISO 100 or ISO 200. Make sure you check on your ISO settings before you start shooting, otherwise you might end up with something like this:



    If you’re really getting serious about your photography, make sure you don’t go cheap on your tripod. Even a slight breeze can cause a cheap, flimsy tripod to move or vibrate enough to throw off the focus of your photos. You’ll want a tripod that will properly hold the weight of your camera and lens, and is adjustable enough for your tastes. Most good and stable tripod head and leg combinations will be in the $300+ range.

    Avoid midday sun

    If you can help it, try not to shoot in the middle of a bright sunny day. It will mess up your colors and create rather harsh reflections, especially from the windows. The best times to shoot by far are right before sunrise and right at or just after sunset. Cloudy days can be good as well, but you need to be mindful of your contrast and saturation. An overcast day can almost be ideal for even lighting, but just about any shot pointed upward toward the sky is going to have a very overexposed, ugly background. If you’re able to get a nice balance of blue skies, clouds, and soft lighting, then you can get capture something truly awesome:



    Manage your reflections

    Unless the car you’re shooting has a matte paint job, just about every car you shoot is going to act like a mirror. Managing reflections is vital to good automotive photography, since the last thing you want is for glare to ruin your photo. One of the easiest ways to help manage your reflections and glare, especially those given off from windshields and other glass, is to use a circular polarizer. The front of the circular polarizer rotates so that you can set it to remove the reflections of your choice. Here’s an example of the difference that the circular polarizer makes. The first photo shows how it looks without the polarizer, and the second shows what the polarizer does to the reflections on the windshield, hood, and more:



    The circular polarizer will also help reduce glare when taking interior shots. I never leave home without my circular polarizer, and it should ALWAYS be in your camera bag. The only excuse not to have one is if you have a point and shoot camera that doesn’t support one.

    Don’t forget to also be mindful of reflections that can’t be controlled by a circular polarizer, such as things in the area surrounding the car. Watch out for distinct colors, lines, and even people that will show up in the paint of the car, and try your best to position the car to minimize these things.

    Part 3 -- Making the best of your equipment

    You don’t need the latest and greatest DSLR to take good photos, but SLR cameras definitely have more of an advantage with their interchangeable lenses. However, that isn’t to say that you still can’t get good results out of a point-and-shoot. For example, this photo above was taken with my camera phone...



    ...and I took this photo with a disposable film camera:



    In fact, many people end up spending a lot of money on a DSLR, but since they don’t take the time to really learn how to use it properly, their photos end up looking worse than if they used their camera phone. All you really need is the know-how to use what equipment you have properly, and this counts for DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras, and even your camera phone. It’s not as simple as fully comprehending the manual, but it definitely does help.

    Tripod, Tripod, Tripod

    ‘Nuff said. If you don’t have one, get one. I cannot stress this enough. Using a tripod will not only help give you a good, stable platform to take pictures from, but it’ll also help you slow things down so that you’re not rushing your shots. Setting up the tripod will also give you time to re-examine the scene and your composition. Are there distractions surrounding the car? Is the lighting good? Are you shooting from a different elevation other than standing eye level?

    There will undoubtedly be times when using a tripod will be impractical or even impossible, but I’ll still default to the tripod on just about every automotive feature shoot that I do.

    Adjusting your aperture and how it affects shutter speed and ISO

    Ever wonder how photos have one thing singled out, and the rest blurry? That’s because the aperture is adjusted to shoot wide open, creating a blurred effect away from the focus point. Shooting “wide open” means that you lower your aperture down to the lowest possible f-stop. Many lenses have a lowest f-stop of ƒ3.5 (more often written as f/3.5), but other lenses can go down to ƒ1.8 or even ƒ1.2. On the other hand, using a higher f-stop will keep more things in focus, but at the expense of letting in less light, which again leads to a tripod being a must. Experiment and see what kind of results you can get, since there is no right or wrong when it comes to your aperture. It all comes down to how you want to present your subject to your viewer. Switching your camera to aperture priority mode will help you play around with things. Also, remember that if you zoom in (in other words, use telephoto) for a photo and use a lower f-stop, you’ll get even more blurriness away from your focus point. I use my telephoto lens with a low f-stop very often to make a car pop out from the surrounding area. Here is an example of how different apertures can affect a photo, using an 85mm ƒ1.4 lens:



    Also, remember that your aperture affects the amount of light going into your camera. A wider aperture lets in more light, which will consequently result in having to use a faster shutter speed to ensure proper exposure. Your ISO will also play a role here, since the ISO adjusts how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to the incoming light. It’s this tricky balance of these three main factors that affect your photo, and really the best way to understand this triangle relationship is to get out there and experiment.

    One filter to rule them all

    I stressed the use of the circular polarizer filter in Part 2′s “Managing your reflections” section, so I’ll stress it here again. It really is a filter that I won’t leave home without, especially when it comes to automotive photography. The only other filter that I use often will be a neutral density filter, which basically acts like window tint to let in less light. This is helpful when you want to use a slow shutter speed, but the overall lighting situation is too bright. Otherwise, I prefer not to use UV filters or anything else that acts as another piece of unnecessary glass on the front of my lens.

    Turn off your flash

    There are certain ways to use a flash effectively on a car, but you usually need more than one, and it definitely won’t be the one attached to your camera. Thus, keep it turned off, and refer to the tripod rule above one more time.
    Last edited by Verdugo; 12-21-2012 at 12:31 PM. Reason: Revised tips
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    JPEG vs. RAW and post-processing

    It’s important to understand what happens after you take your photo on your DSLR, point-and-shoot, or camera phone. If you’re shooting in JPEG mode, your camera’s manufacturer will apply its own formula of color saturation, contrast, sharpening, etc to the photo. With most cameras you can control this to a certain degree, but the options are typically very limited to settings such as “Vivid” or “Monochrome.” Thus, you’ve pretty much turned your photo processing over to your manufacturer to determine, much like how you’d just take your film to a developer and they’d have full control over everything. The way you can truly make your photos your own is to shoot in RAW mode where available. RAW is quite literally the raw photo data that your camera captures, and thus it doesn’t apply any adjustments that would normally take place when you shoot in JPEG. There are many technical differences between the formats, but in the end, RAW has all of your photo’s data, whereas with JPEG you lose data since the file is compressed.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t post-process JPEGs though. There’s no reason that you can’t apply more edits to a photo from your point-and-shoot or camera phone. Often times you’ll take a photo that looks absolutely perfect right out of the camera, but even doing little things like a little sharpening or a little boost in saturation or contrast can turn your photo into something more. Just don’t go overboard with it! It’s very easy to go overboard with contrast and saturation especially. Too much contrast will remove definition and details from dark areas, and too much saturation can make a photo look very artificial. Use your best judgment and discretion, as you’ll know very quickly if something’s starting to look too extreme. Here’s an example that I took with my camera phone, showing the original and just a little bit of slight adjustments to shadows, highlights, and contrast that took all but 30 seconds:



    Garbage In, Garbage Out

    This is a mantra that I will always mention when it comes to photography. Post-processing can help make a good photo into an exceptional photo, but it can never help transform an already bad photo into an exceptional photo. If you don’t start out with a good photo, no amount of post-processing will make it awesome. At its root, that is main thing I’ve tried to stress in these tips and tricks. If you start out with good composition, good use of light, and proper use of your equipment, then you will almost always end up with a great photo. However, if your photos starts off with bad composition, overly exposed or drastically underexposed, and your camera isn’t steadied with a tripod or doesn’t have the right aperture, shutter, or ISO settings, then you really can’t expect to be able to completely rescue the photo through post-processing. This is why the basics are important, and once you’ve gotten a good understanding or even mastery of the basics, then you’ll definitely be going down the right path toward great photography.

    I hope these tips and tricks have been helpful. Keep your eyes open on this website that will include more advanced tips and tricks, such as more specific discussions about equipment (such as types of lenses), capturing motion, and post-processing:


    http://www.nof8butwhatwemake.com

    If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to shoot me a PM (I go by “Verdugo” here on NASIOC) or send me an e-mail at armin [at] arminausejo.com. Thanks for reading, and happy shooting!

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    Last edited by Verdugo; 12-21-2012 at 12:31 PM.
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    Regarding rolling shots:

    As for the motion shots I have in this thread, the main thing is to try to match the car's speed with an inverse shuttter (I think that's right, I always hated math). For example, if the car's going at 60 mph, start with a shutter speed of 1/60. A little faster will give you more definition on the spokes, but a little slower will make the car look like it's going super fast. I'm usually pretty far out the passenger side window when taking these shots, but I've also gotten pretty damn low as well. I took this hanging out the side of our family's minivan:

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    i think you are an amazing photographer, and you posted this thread to make all of us amateurs realize how much we suck.

    i used to work at a hotel where we used to have a lot of big wigs from car magazines stay, car and driver, road and track etc. the used to stay in downtown san diego, then jet to the mountains to road test vehicles they were photoing. the photographers always left really really early in the morning b/c the sunrise light was the best light so shoot cars, so they said...after they told me this, i realized that all of the car magazines usually have pictures taken in very indirect sunlight, makes sense that it was always right before sunrise.

    totally cool pictures by the way, i just need to buy a camera that isnt terrible...
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    Quote Originally Posted by dbya rx View Post
    i think you are an amazing photographer, and you posted this thread to make all of us amateurs realize how much we suck.

    i used to work at a hotel where we used to have a lot of big wigs from car magazines stay, car and driver, road and track etc. the used to stay in downtown san diego, then jet to the mountains to road test vehicles they were photoing. the photographers always left really really early in the morning b/c the sunrise light was the best light so shoot cars, so they said...after they told me this, i realized that all of the car magazines usually have pictures taken in very indirect sunlight, makes sense that it was always right before sunrise.

    totally cool pictures by the way, i just need to buy a camera that isnt terrible...
    We all have to start somewhere. I did...and I wouldn't be where I am without help from some good mentors and my own diligence to learn and improve. I still feel that I have a lot to improve upon myself, especially when I see some of the other photos out there.

    Before sunrise is great, but so is right as the sun goes down. I'm not a morning person, so I prefer that golden hour rather than the earlier one
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    Quote Originally Posted by Verdugo View Post
    We all have to start somewhere. I did...and I wouldn't be where I am without help from some good mentors and my own diligence to learn and improve. I still feel that I have a lot to improve upon myself, especially when I see some of the other photos out there.
    +1 totally agree
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    Bookmarked.. Thanks Armin!

    I have a slightly off topic question.. a while back you had some photos posted of a meteor shower and they were wicked. Where can I purchase those? As an IT pro you'd think I backed my home computer up.. but nope.. lost all my old bookmarks after a unfortunate storage mishap ....

    Second question more on topic.. if one were to grab a reasonable point and shoot around $100-$120.. what one might you recommend? I'd prefer one I can easily fit in my pocket, probably about smart phone sized. My skill level is no where near the point where I'd need to support lens options.. even still there are so many choices I'm not even sure where to start.
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    Quote Originally Posted by mangostick View Post
    Bookmarked.. Thanks Armin!

    I have a slightly off topic question.. a while back you had some photos posted of a meteor shower and they were wicked. Where can I purchase those? As an IT pro you'd think I backed my home computer up.. but nope.. lost all my old bookmarks after a unfortunate storage mishap ....

    Second question more on topic.. if one were to grab a reasonable point and shoot around $100-$120.. what one might you recommend? I'd prefer one I can easily fit in my pocket, probably about smart phone sized. My skill level is no where near the point where I'd need to support lens options.. even still there are so many choices I'm not even sure where to start.
    Sure thing!

    I actually have that print available for purchase here: Poster Prints - Armin H. Ausejo Photography Galleries

    As far as a point and shoot around $100-120, that's kind of a tough range since surprisingly these days, a lot of smart phone cameras can take as good, if not better photos than point and shoots at that price. Nevertheless, it's been a long time since I've shopped around for a point and shoot camera, so honestly I'd probably use this site as best reference: Digital Photography Review
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    Sweet, thanks for the web links!

    I'm not against a price range adjustment.. came up with that range just from browsing around in the big box stores at what's out now. Compared to the last pns I bought (3.1mp) some 8 years ago ( I tink b time for upgrade no? ) the features and mp ratings have certainly improved given a pretty dramatic drop in price. Smart phone wise, I dont own one. I have a work supplied blackberry and that's about as close as I really want to get to being attached to my phone. There are also times when I go full out analog and leave any digi-communications device at home. Those are the cases where a really nice and small pns would come into play.
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    Quote Originally Posted by mangostick View Post
    Sweet, thanks for the web links!

    I'm not against a price range adjustment.. came up with that range just from browsing around in the big box stores at what's out now. Compared to the last pns I bought (3.1mp) some 8 years ago ( I tink b time for upgrade no? ) the features and mp ratings have certainly improved given a pretty dramatic drop in price. Smart phone wise, I dont own one. I have a work supplied blackberry and that's about as close as I really want to get to being attached to my phone. There are also times when I go full out analog and leave any digi-communications device at home. Those are the cases where a really nice and small pns would come into play.
    I hear ya on that. I'm afraid I can't really help much on the point-and-shoot thing then, purely because I haven't researched it in a long time. My Android phone's been a good point and shoot for me these days
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    good tips. always room for more knowledge

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    Jan 2002
    Location
    Sea-Town, WA
    Posts
    13,307
    I Support ClubWRX
    Finally posted the revised tips here!
    Armin - ClubWRX Admin/Moderator since 2002
    Senior Editor and Photographer, NWMotiv.com
    Photography Portfolios: ArminAusejo.com | ArminWeddings.com
    President, Project One Car Club
    02 WRX "EVA-00" | 2010 A4, still to be named | 02 M3 "M-Thrizzle" (traded in) | 08 STI "Blaze" (sold)
    djrez4 is a genius | ScoobyDMC #010

  15. #14
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Apr 2013
    Location
    St.Louis
    Posts
    5
    Thank you so much for posting this! I have been taking car photography for quite awhile but this is great! I will refer back to it thank you :-D

    Thanks alot,
    Tara

  16. #15
    Registered User RichD514's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2012
    Location
    Medford, New York, United States
    Posts
    798
    Great write-up!
    I am as amateur a photographer as you can get..but the one thing that irks me the most its seeing pictures with horrific lighting.. I'm talking to you Mr. i just finished detailing my car at sunset and snapped some pics with the sun behind my car

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